As an introvert, there is nothing I fear more than unsolicited small talk from strangers. Actually, I lie. There is nothing I fear more than unsolicited small talk from strangers on public transport at 7am when I have headphones in. I barely function well enough before 10am as is, let alone having to remove one ear bud to indulge the slightly insane-looking denim-clad lady sat squeezed in next to me.
Are you at uni? She half-yells, and cranes her neck around her mountain of reusable bags.
Yep. Single word responses make it easier to end a conversation. I’m not in any hurry to strike up a friendship before I’ve eaten breakfast.
You’d better make the most of it there.
Pardon? It is early. Maybe I’ve misheard.
I said you’d better make the most of it there. Once you leave its a jungle.
Oh, uh, ok. Crazy. Definitely crazy. Time to disengage. I see if I can slide my earbud back in before she starts again but then she says it.
Best years of your life, uni.
Well I hope not!
She looks me dead in the eye, all pretence of casual small talk forgotten. Well they will be.
At the time, I laughed awkwardly and shook it off. I have spent the last five years of my life on a constant bid to one-up myself. Year after year I push to make the present even better, even bigger, even brighter than the months I left behind. I was going to make damn sure that this wasn’t the age I looked back on with vague nostalgia-induced fondness. I wasn’t going to have had a “best years of my life” because I would constantly be in them.
Unfortunately, it’s true when people say that pride always comes before a fall. Sometime around April of this year, the notion of the Pacific Crest Trail entered my consciousness. A six month hike from Mexico to Canada, crossing through desert, snowy mountain passes and steep rocky descents. A gruelling physical and (primarily) mental challenge. Somewhat terrifying, definitely unforgettable. And just like that, I set my delusional sights on it. If Cheryl Strayed from Wild could do it, so could I. (Had I thought this through, I might have realised that having a book on the number 1 New York Times Bestsellers list was also on Cheryl’s apparently highly accessible list of unattainable conquests. But I didn’t think that far ahead). Plus, what else was I supposed to do once I’d graduated?
I justified that I liked hiking, my mental health was always better when I was outdoors, and, despite sixteen years of education, I still needed a challenge. The idea of the PCT turned a hobby into an obsession. I was obsessed with buying gear. I was obsessed with following current hikers on every social media platform. Obsessed with the fact that a US trail blog wanted me (me!) to write for them as I completed the trek. Most of all, I was obsessed with the look on people’s faces when I told them I planned to hike from Mexico to Canada. Alone. Alone? Yep, Alone!
There aren’t many ways that I can describe the feeling of invincibility that committing to an insane idea gives you. When you learn to drive, at some point or another someone (a teacher, a driving instructor or maybe even a concerned parent) is bound to show you the statistics for car crashes across Learner and Provisional licenses. Trust me, it’s going to happen. This person won’t just tell you that crashes triple in the first six months of a Provisional license, they’ll show you the graph for good measure. The line shoots up so fast it’s almost vertical, forming a sharp, unwelcome peak. At the apex is this invincibility: the point where newly-minted P platers feel absolutely powerful and irrevocably unchallenged. That is, until they crash.
This was my crash: a ten day hike, turned one day mental breakdown. At the end of my term, I packed all of my expensive gear into a bag along with nine days of food and my heady false confidence. I was going to hike from Sydney to Newcastle, an idea that I had borrowed from my brother as a sort of trial run for the PCT. Ten days in the bush alone? Not an issue. Especially not when one is planning to hike for six months across a foreign country by themselves. It would be a piece of cake.
By 11am, I was crying on the phone to my dad. This wasn’t the glorious opportunity for self-reflection I had promised myself it would be. Instead, I was hungover, dripping with sweat and desperately alone. And, for the first time in almost a year, I was beginning to feel the familiar pangs of depression. How had I already failed? I had the perfect formula: outside, physical exercise, doing something I loved. I had hiked further than I intended in weather hotter than I expected. Instead I was filled with all of the feelings I had worked so hard to evade. I texted my roommate I just want to stop crying in the bush and be at home watching Survivor. He responded come home.
Sparing you the details of the spiral that continued over the next four hours, by 3pm after a much-needed phone call with my best mate I decided to quit. My pride was shredded, and I sat on the side of the road waiting for Will to pick me up feeling like a complete failure. The idea of facing the dozens of people I had so confidently told about my plans made me feel physically ill with embarrassment. Despite this, I truly believe things could only have gotten worse for me mentally had I continued hiking alone, and it was the right decision to swallow what little was left of my pride and call it a day.
Little by little, over the blank two weeks that I had put aside for the hike, I began to try and piece things together. A lot of things were pretty positive: I spent the time swimming in the ocean and going climbing, I was able to read books (something I haven’t been able to do since I started my degree), and most significantly I got incredible, uplifting responses from family and friends without exception. My favourite came, surprisingly, from my brother. You’ve learned more about yourself in one day than you have in the last month and that’s rad.
On the other hand, I felt like I was drowning. I didn’t open my pack for a week because I couldn’t look at it. I lost my appetite. I couldn’t sleep. I did a series of spontaneous and uncharacteristic things that in retrospect were probably a reflection of how unstable I felt. I tried hard to do the things that I knew I loved doing, but just ended up feeling hollow. Fun holiday, right?
Being brutally honest, yesterday was the first day in two weeks I haven’t woken up with a lump in my throat and a weight on my chest. I’m counting that as a pretty big win. As well as booking in to see a professional, therapy for me includes throwing 80s dance parties alone in my room, teaching the six year old I nanny how to climb on the brick wall next to our bus stop, and, most significantly, not making grand plans for my future. The last one is key.
It became clear pretty quickly for me that my obsession with the PCT had provided a convenient escape from a far more frightening reality: life after graduation. What was I going to do once I had been thrust from the comfort of structured education? I wrote to a friend, terrified: I’m only three months out from graduating and having to doggy paddle in the real world is pretty unappealing at the moment. I’m kind of terrified of making the wrong choice (or even more so of making a choice that would let me slip into leading an ordinary life). Please god don’t let these be the best years of my life.
Theres the crux of it. The emotional fallout from my car crash of a hike led to an existential crisis. How very millennial of me.
So, what now? That’s the big question isn’t it. Not what next? Not what happened? For the next three months before graduation, I’ll be focusing on now. My beautiful, patient friends, the last three courses of a degree I have studied because I love it, the tricky problem at the climbing gym that I tackle every Saturday. I’m looking forward to more late night chats with my roommates, spontaneous ocean swims as we come into summer and hiking the Overland Track (with a friend of course). Truth is, I still have no idea what next year has in store for me, and I would be lying if I said I’d completely given up on worrying about it. But instead of jumping ship to the next insane life plan, I’m trying to be more conscious and more grateful about where I am at the moment.
These are, after all, supposed to be the best years of my life.